Superior Fire Dept. Looks Back On Husky Refinery Explosion 4 Years Later

From coordinating evacuation to the response on-scene, Superior Fire officials say valuable lessons were learned from an event they hope they never have to respond to again.

SUPERIOR, Wis.- The nearly 30,000 people who had to evacuate their homes in Superior will never forget April 26, 2018 – when the Husky Refinery exploded and shook the city, putting first responders to the ultimate test.

“When people see a big cloud of black smoke I’m sure people get reminded of that incident that happened that day, ‘oh are we having something similar happen?’,” Battalion Chief Camron Vollbrecht said. “I think for us is the lessons that we’ve learned since then.”

From coordinating evacuation to the response on-scene, Superior Fire officials say valuable lessons were learned from an event they hope they never have to respond to again.

While it happened 4 years ago, it’s a day BC Vollbrecht remembers well. “Well with anything with a big event like that you can’t believe it’s been that long.”

For him, it began with a call at 8 a.m. he said when they arrived Husky’s firefighters were already attacking the flames.

So Superior crews started checking to see if the hundreds of employees and contractors on scene were injured before getting them somewhere safe.

“And then that secondary fire started with the asphalt and then it changed rapidly from there, you know we all go to training we all do scenario-based training so we’re all simulating these exercises as much as we can however nothing ever prepares you when you have a large incident like that,” said Vollbrecht.

Smoke was reportedly seen from as far as Highway 61 along the North Shore to Cloquet.

It was a traumatic experience for one little girl in Superior who had to evacuate with her family and stay in a hotel.

“Terrifying, because everyone was panicking, everyone was just running around and everyone was crying, screaming,” she said on April 30, 2018.

There were no fatalities or significant injuries, and Vollbrecht said that’s a testament to how all the emergency agencies worked together.

“I know Chief Gordon learned valuable lessons of running a large command post, like, that like I said with multiple agencies involved multiple states multiple jurisdictions and all kind of coming together to get a plan together,” he said.

It’s command and operational experience from the Husky Refinery that has come into play in just the last year. “Duluth and Superior both had large structure fires this year,” said the Battalion Chief.

Most recently, the historic warehouse fire on Superior’s North End in early January.

According to the Battalion Chief, having the Husky Refinery explosion under their belt helps make the response to those calls a bit easier.“In general, we’re a very young fire department we’ve had a lot of turnover in the last 10 years.”

“So gaining that experience from being at a fire like that figuring out how to put the fire out and get the confidence that we know we can handle a situation like that definitely helps us on smaller incidents and also just having that feeling that hey I’ve been to things that are worse than this, this is doable, we can handle this situation,” he said.

And he said it’s also given the department confidence that crews from across the bridge will help at a moment’s notice when flames get bigger.

“We are 2 cities 2 counties 2 states but it is 1 community,” said Vollbrecht.

The Husky Refinery in Superior is still on track to open in the first quarter of next year, after being delayed a bit by the pandemic.

On Tuesday, a press release went out about a program called “Husky Friends,” claiming to be from “Husky Energy, part of the Cenovus group of companies.” A representative from Cenovus reached out to FOX 21 and said the program was not a part of them or Husky Refinery.”

In the press release, the “Husky Friends” claimed to be offering mailers to residences around the refinery and in Duluth for people to sign up for “safety alerts, receive a Neighbor Compassion Kit, and learn about hydrogen fluoride, a chemical commonly used in refining operations.”

“Neither the refinery nor Cenovus has hired this group, or another other, as a PR company or agency,” said Kim Guttormson, Media and Issues Manager for Cenovus. “They continue to misrepresent themselves.”

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